David Gottesman lives in Beachwood, Ohio, a town with a Jewish majority. This demographic fact is largely the result of a 1952 court ruling that ordered Beachwood's leaders to allow the building of a Reform temple. So naturally Gottesman assumed there would be little objection to a plan in 1996 to open two more synagogues, one for his own brand of Orthodox Judaism and another for a Hasidic group. He was mistaken. A majority of Beachwood's Jews, mostly Reform and Conservative, have fought his cause at town meetings, at the polls and in court with an obstinacy outstripping their own tormenters' 48 years ago. Gottesman realized that he was not their problem. A successful gastroenterologist who didn't wear his skullcap on the job, he looked and acted much like them. It was the ultra-Orthodox Hasids they despised, with their side curls and apparent self-righteousness. Neighbors warned that the Orthodox wanted to turn Beachwood into a medieval "ghetto."
The tale is a typically dispiriting take on American Jewish dysfunction from Samuel G. Freedman's new book Jew vs. Jew (Simon & Schuster; 384 pages; $26). But to the initiated, its message is more specific: the angst of belonging to the group so often stuck in the middle of such rifts. Gottesman is a Modern Orthodox Jew. Just like Joe Lieberman.
It's been a good week for American Jewry. Freedman recalls stories his mother used to tell of Bess Myerson's selection as Miss America, "how thrilled they were that a Jewish girl was seen as pretty enough to be chosen. In a more profound way, this touches the same chords." But to those familiar with Judaism's internal fault lines there is an irony in Al Gore's embrace of--and America's fascination with--Joe Lieberman's style of observance. For decades, Modern Orthodoxy has taken a drubbing from its left and its right. Many were convinced it was doomed to speedy disappearance.
Numerous writers (and ordinary Jews) have bemoaned observant Judaism's diminishing American ranks, noting that 52% of Jews marry Gentiles, and 50% do not belong to any synagogue. The Columbia University journalism professor offers only a terse aside. "It is hard to work up any optimism" that such people will continue as real Jews, he writes. Rather, he asks, once they have drifted off into a Seinfeld-and-bagels ethnicity, how will American Judaism be defined?
His grim answer: through a "civil war" already in progress. "I have witnessed the struggle for the soul of American Jewry. It has torn asunder families, communities and congregations," he writes. He describes the embarrassment and rage felt by more liberal Jews at Yale University when some Orthodox students sued to avoid living in co-ed dorms; the dismay of the alumni of a secular Jewish summer camp in New York State upon discovering that their alma mater had been supplanted by the ultra-Orthodox community of Monsey; and the pressures that drove a troubled Orthodox gas-station cashier in Jacksonville, Fla., to plant a bomb (nonoperative, he claims from prison) in a Conservative synagogue attended by members of his own family.